Monday, November 28, 2011

Beyond Visual Literacy

There's been a lot of talk about the demise of the picture book. Parent Tracy Grant summarized the heated debate in this piece in the Washington Post. Maurice Sendak chimed in to say that the picture book is blighted by misguided notions of childhood innocence, although he admits at the same time that he hasn't read very many lately. Some of us who watched the National Book Awards streaming from New York recently were a little perturbed by celebrity writer John Lithgow's attempts to be funny. In the process of self-deprecation he managed to dismiss the entire form of the picture book by suggesting it wasn't "real."

Is it, as Karen Lotz, Candlewick publisher suggests in the NYT article that started the brouhaha, a matter of the picture book being an analog artifact in a digital age? I'm not so sure. The codex book might be analog in structure but the picture book, if we pay attention to how young children "read" it, is far from analog in application.

Adults may read it from front to back and left to right but look at this child poised to turn a page.

Left? Right? Depends? If the book topples and ends up upside down in the process, a two-year-old might continue "reading" it that way. Nothing linear about that.

Toddlers react to the whole book as an object, without privileging the words on the page. They also react to the voice and the presence of an adult reading to them. They memorize text (another skill we tend not to privilege for some odd reason) and will often catch the lazy adult reader trying to flip two pages at once. Young children will want to visit a beloved book over and over, as they define it for themselves auditorily and visually, finding comfort in prediction. And of course they will imitate the reading behaviors (or lack thereof) of the adults in their lives. In all these ways, the picture book is meant to be a multi-sensory experience.

Its future is obviously tied up with the future of the book itself. But as with hybrid cars, we haven't quite found the right combination of green, cheap, tough, and accessible, not yet. Meanwhile, the codex book with pictures continues to allow children to acquire meaning in the often ambiguous spaces between text and image, and to do so with their entire bodies, which is what young children need to do. Speculating on causation in a narrative is a very different skill from touching a screen to create it. The two are not interchangeable, nor is one better than the other. But they are different.

If we let the picture book slip away while we dither around trying to decide if the form is dead, then the thing we may be endangering is the potential of the young child's brain to take in multiple stimuli, find meaning, react with all senses at once, and thereby create the active engagement with the world that we call literacy.

Note: This post appears simultaneously on Write at Your Own Risk, the VCFA faculty blog.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

More on Audience

Yesterday's questions yielded several more opinions on audience:

Stacy DeKeyser wrote her forthcoming midgrade fantasy, The Brixen Witch, with herself as the audience:
I tried to write something I would like to read, and my favorite genre is midgrade. Also, I honestly can't gauge the reading taste of anyone else. (Though I've tried, and my editors and agent usually tell me I'm wrong. For example, I allowed myself to think of my potential audience as "boys" when rats--a lot of rats--entered the story during the first draft. Later, my editor told me that my primary audience would be girls. So what do I know?)
The book has a fair number of long sentences and big words, because that's what I like to write, and read. And because I hated it when some critiquers told me to simplify if I wanted to sell it, and I wanted to prove them wrong. (Lots of what I accomplish in writing is out of spite, I have come to realize.)
Kimberley Griffiths Little started writing Circle of Secrets on deadline:
I turn a new book in to my editor within a 6-8 week period. A book I had barely begun to think about, let alone write. I had just launched The Healing Spell and hadn't received any of those first, wonderful fan letters from kids around the country who were begging for another book like it, so I was writing this story just for me, which is how every story begins. Although this time my editor was hoping for a beautiful, poignant family story with a vulnerable, troubled girl like The Healing Spell contained. The pressure was on in spades! But when I say I was writing this book for myself, I am literally talking about the stories I love to read - stories I loved to read when I was 9-13 years old and stories I still love to read and never stopped reading even when I became an official grown-up.

Since I love weaving my character's relationships together in various emotional ways, as well as concocting a plot with some suspense and twists - I'm still thinking about that child reader in me, but I also start thinking about the readers out there who want an exciting story with surprises....Of course, this usually doesn't occur until the first draft is completed. Before that I'm too worried about actually getting the story some sort of coherent and chronological sense. During my second and third drafts I'm honing the depth of the characters and making sure all the little connections and surprises in the plot works, and fixing holes and inconsistencies, etc. During revisions and the production work with my editor, I start really dreaming about the kids out there who (I hope!) are going to connect with the book. Now that Circle of Secrets  has launched, it's happening: letters are coming in from adult readers who tell me the story describes their own feelings and situation when they were kids as well as kid readers who love the small, secret connections within the story. Once the book is out in the world, hearing that kind of marvelous feedback makes me feel like the readers and I are connected in a very special, magical way.
Bonus: Book trailer, Circle of Secrets:

Barbara Brooks Wallace talks about how readers' tastes can change, recalling two of her books, Claudia and Peppermints in the Parlor. More about Peppermints in this video interview with Bobbie:
...a lady in our church informed me that her daughter "hated" Claudia. I simply told her that everybody doesn't like everything, and one had to understand and accept that, and one shouldn't be angered by hearing an opinion, even though negative. A year later, that same woman, with girl in tow, pushed her toward me after church. "I just loved Claudia!" said the child. Well, a year older and better able to understand what Claudia was going through then. This happens often. But I never gave a thought to who might or might not like the story when I wrote it.

And, of course, there's Peppermints in the Parlor. Even grown-ups have read and told me that they enjoyed, even loved, the story. As usual, I never gave a thought to who might read it or like it when I was writing it. I simply sailed around the moon when Jim Trelease and others referred to it as "Dickensian"! Charles hero! I wonder if he might have liked it?
Ah, yes, the conversation of books. Perhaps that's the real reason we write, because we need to talk back to books we have loved or loathed, resented or revered.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interview Wednesday Portal Right Here Today on WWBT

The magic window to today's Interview Wednesday posts on Kidlitosphere is right here on Writing With a Broken Tusk.

First up, Holly Thompson talks about food, influence, life in Japan, operating in two cultures, and more on Gathering Books.

On Playing By the Book, Victoria Griffith, author of The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos Dumont, talks to Zoe about her journalism background, research, and books that inspire her.

A five-way interview with Candlewick authors Paul Janeczko and Ruth Thomson, editors, and a publicist on The Whole Megillah, the writer's resource for Jewish-themed books.

Watch for additional interview links during the day.

This post itself will be an all-day group interview in response to a single question. Years ago, Mem Fox wrote a piece in Bookbird journal titled "For Whom Do We Write?" It can also be found in variant grammatical mode under the title, "So Who Are We Writing For?" In it she talked about sending all potential readers out of the room when you write a book--silencing all those possible voices that hover around the writer, seeking to influence the work. She says only then can she allow the work itself to take shape. Audience has always been of interest to writers, perhaps most of all to those whose work is read by young readers. Maurice Sendak once used to hate being called a children's writer. 

I'm asking a group of children's and YA writers to think of one of their books--any one--as they answer these two questions:
  1. Who was your audience when you wrote this book? 
  2. At what stage in the life of the work in progress did you allow that potential audience into your mind?
Kathi Appelt wrote The Underneath over the span of three years. She writes:
My original audience was a boy, someone who resembled my own son when he was around thirteen or fourteen years old. It was an incident that occurred with him that gave me the impetus for the story to begin with. So I had him in the back of my mind over the course of writing, but I confess that as I got deeper into the story, I actually lost track of any audience at all. It felt as though I was writing for the story itself and the characters in the story, as if they were the only “audience” that mattered. I kept writing and writing and writing until it seemed like I got the characters’ stories right within the context of the bigger story. I was writing to find the stories that my characters had to show me. It seems like the intended audience was the first and then the last thing that I kept in mind.
Tom Birdseye's most recent novel, Storm Mountain (trailer here) began on a the 41-mile Timberline Trail that circles Mt. Hood, the highest mountain in Oregon. He describes the experience:
Halfway around, gazing up at yet another stunning view of the iconic peak, it suddenly occurred to me that although I loved mountains and scaling them, I had, in fact, never written anything with a climbing focus. What was with that? Why not combine two of my passions -- writing and the alpine realm? It was a head-slapping moment, and in it a book idea was born. I'll write a middle-grade adventure story, I declared, set in the high Cascades. So the audience, middle grade readers, was set in my mind very quickly. 
It wasn't until I was well into the first draft that it began to dawn on me that this wasn't just a climbing adventure, it was also a story about the grief that the protagonist, Cat, feels at the loss of her father. My father died when I was young. I never really processed his passing -- I didn't know how -- and instead pushed the pain aside and moved on with my life. Writing Storm Mountain became a conduit for finally dealing with a scarred-over wound. In the end it was a much for an audience of one -- me -- as it was for kids.
Shutta Crum comments on the differences in audience awareness between novels and picture books. Her picture book, Mine! just made School Library Journal's list of Best Books of 2011.
I'd hazard a guess that most writers don't think of a particular audience--other than themselves--when they are first creating. I don't. Sometimes I don't even start to think about the audience until my editor makes me think about it. At some point, when a novel is ready to submit, I simply give it over to my agent/editor. I always figure that a good book will find its audience. It is not until after the editor has her hands on it that I worry about word choice, white space, sentence length, etc., all those kinds of things that one worries about with an audience of a particular age. The one exception to this, I find, is when I am working on a picture book for the very young, such as Mine! (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). For that book my editor challenged me to write for the very youngest of audiences. So I had my audience firmly in mind. The book ended up only having 10 1/2 words.
When Sharon Darrow was writing her YA novel Trash, she thought the audience might be the same people who read The Painters of Lexieville because they had some characters and settings in common. But, she says:
I found that Trash had more boy readers than Painters did, at least I got more mail from boys. At first I thought that might be because of the graffiti writing in it, but later I learned that the boys liked the poetry, too. Just about all the readers who wrote to me mentioned liking the white space on the page.

I thought a lot more about the audience when I was writing Trash than when I was writing Painters, partly because I was thinking about how the words looked on the page, almost as if that were a part of the graphic aspect of the book and I was hoping my audience would enjoy that.

When I was writing Painters, I felt like I was the audience for the character as she 'told' me her story, then when I was revising the words for the readers so that they might be able to 'hear' her voice, I thought about how words sound when spoken and about how feelings come through the sounds a voice gives to words. I hoped my audience would be able to experience Pert's voice in a way similar to the way it had come to me, except I wanted the reader to feel much more like she or he were living the story along with Pert as it happened. The revisions were for my imagined young teen-aged reader, mostly girls I thought, but, in a way, I imagined Pert herself reading and deciding if I'd done a good job writing her story!
Jane Kurtz has written two picture books with her brother, Only a Pigeon (soon to have a new edition with a new title, Pigeon Boys of Ethiopia) and Water Hole Waiting. They've also worked on a novel together. Here's Jane's take on audience and co-authorship:
We've also worked on a novel together. One of the interesting things that happens with a co-author is that we both get audience reaction right away...from each other! I will think some word or sentence is funny or apt or touching or just right in some other way, only to discover that it falls flat for Chris--and vice versa. We argue for our choices. Often we talk about audience as part of that because it's useless to say, "Well, I'm doing this because it pleases ME" if it doesn't please the other person. With this new edition of Only a Pigeon, we had the advantage of having tried our story with lots of actual elementary aged kids so we talked about what confused or frustrated or interested or amused kids as we revised. I kind of wish I could now re-do all my books.
Julie Larios says she wrote her second picture book, Have You Ever Done That? in response to a prompt at a small writing workshop conducted at the home of her friend and colleague Laura Kvasnosky:
As a general target audience, I had in mind young children who have hesitated when asked to do something brave, as a way to suggest that courage often comes in small packages and doesn't look like what we think it's going to look like. I knew right away that what I had to say was for a young audience, picture book age, because I imagined it as a series of questions that could be talked over at bedtime.  I love questions, no matter what the age of the audience, and the read-aloud moments before bed, when a parent lingers and talks over what's been read, those feel especially important to me. Why not put the kind of questions out there that can be pondered while falling asleep? And if I'm going to be perfectly honest, I'll admit that the specific target audience was actually the child I was at about four years old, staying with my family at the beach cabin my grandparents built. One hot summer night, I was granted the special privilege of sleeping outside on the open porch; I could hear the waves and see the moon and stars. It should have been Heaven, but I was terrified. So I wrote the book for the little girl I was that night, as a way of holding her hand across the years and telling her it would be alright. And I knew from the moment I had the idea - before a word was ever written - who the audience was. 
David Lubar (Attack of the Vampire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales--see this great review on A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy)says:
I am going to answer the question by explaining that I have no answer. (So let's call this a meta-answer.) Perhaps it marks me as a mutant, curmudgeon, or semi-solipsist, but I generally write with no audience in mind. I have a story to tell. It seizes me, and I set out to write it. The only time an imagined audience becomes an issue is when I get sidetracked by worrying that some group, such as the award givers, or the fans of whatever genre my last book fell into, will not like my current work. Then, I have to heave that audience from my mind and get back to telling a story. That approach seems to be working out pretty well, so far. 
Leda Schubert admits to having trouble with the idea of audience when she wrote Ballet of the Elephants:
I think, as many writers seem to think, that I write for myself. I become passionate about something and have to get it down on the page. Then I try to figure out what I've got. With Ballet of the Elephants, for example, I didn't know what I would find when I began to do what would turn out to be months of research. It took a very long time to figure out how to tell the story in a way that might make sense for children, knitting together disparate elements into a whole. When I realized the story was in the performance itself--in the coming together of all these geniuses (including Modoc, the elephant and prima ballerina)--I began to think about the child reader. I'm still not entirely positive that it's a children's book, and I always promise myself to do better next time. With my three newer books, Reading to Peanut, The Princess of Borscht, and Feeding the Sheep, I began with the idea of the child.
Keep coming back, audience! There may be more.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Barbara Brooks Wallace on editor Jean Karl

Ever since I read Dear Genius, Leonard Marcus's collection of correspondence between Harper and Row editor Ursula Nordstrom and her authors and illustrators, I've been intrigued by the experiences of writers, a few of whom I'm lucky enough to know, who got to work with some of the greatest editors in children's publishing. It seems to me that when I talk to Eleanor Schick, who worked with Ursula herself, I can in some way touch that experience. Vicariously, some semblance of it becomes a part of my narrative as well. In our time, when things are changing more rapidly than ever before, it seems important to me that we acknowledge our links with these editors who left their stamp on the field. Without them, somehow, we would collectively be diminished.

Jean Karl, founding editor at what is today Atheneum Books for Young Readers (one of my publishers) was one such.

When I was in the Washington DC area in September, I was lucky enough to visit for a while with my friend Barbara Brooks Wallace. Jean was Bobbie's editor. In an editorial letter, she described Bobbie's middle grade novel, Peppermints in the Parlor, as "marvelously funny" and "a true children's Gothic." Bobbie went on to win two Edgar Awards for The Twin in the Tavern and Sparrows in the Scullery. Thirty-one years after its publication, Peppermints is still in print.

In this brief video, Bobbie tells me about the process of submitting Peppermints in the Parlor to Jean Karl, and hearing about its acceptance.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Jeanne Walker Harvey on My Hands Sing the Blues

My Hands Sing the Blues by Jeanne Walker Harvey, from Marshall Cavendish (a publishing house with vision, judging by just a few recent and backlisted titles) is a childhood biography of artist Romare Bearden. Jeanne has recently taken her picture book on the road. She's been to The Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has been hosting a Romare Bearden retrospective in honor of the centennial of the artist's birth. She was the featured speaker at Bearden Family Fun Day, when children had a chance to do Bearden inspired collages.

In an e-mail message to me Jeanne wrote, "Such fun! And, it was so exciting for me to be talking...where my book takes place -- his birthplace! I met such nice people, including those at the Harvey Gantt Center for African American Culture which is also hosting a Bearden exhibit. And I spoke at the Family Day at the SFMOMA so I've gotten to be at the two places most important to me for this book."

[Uma] Congratulations, Jeanne. As someone who saw this work in manuscript, a long time before it found its voice and current form, I'm delighted to see it in print. (Note to anyone who doubts the power of e-mail: Jeanne and I have never met in person, yet our creative lives connected indelibly over this work!) I'm so pleased to be talking to you now about My Hands Sing the Blues. So, to start, why Romare Bearden, and why a picture book? Talk about how this project came to be.

[Jeanne] I'm a docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and a number of years ago I gave tours to school groups of an exhibit organized by The National Gallery of Romare Bearden's amazing art. The students and I LOVED his art, especially his huge collages, and the stories they tell about himself and his African American heritage. I realized I wanted to write a book about how the people, places and experiences in his childhood, specifically Charlotte, North Carolina, influenced his art. I felt this book had to be a picture book because the story is all about the creation of visual art, and I could not be more thrilled by the incredible illustrations Elizabeth Zunon created for this book. I feel magic happens with a picture book -- something incredibly special happens when the illustrations and words are joined.

[Uma] What's one thing you learned about yourself while writing this book?

[Jeanne] I learned that I need to trust my instinct about how a story should be written, even it's outside my comfort zone. I wrote this book in a loose blues format (three line stanzas with end rhymes and repeating phrases) which was totally new to me. I felt that the story I wanted to tell about Romare Bearden needed to be told in this format because of his passion for jazz and blues music. He felt that the way he created his paintings, his collages, was inspired by the give and take, the improvisation of jazz music.

[Uma] What's one thing you learned about writing?

[Jeanne] Trust the writing process/journey because you never know what will happen! I learned to trust that I'll get past the pain of those first "drafty drafts" as you call them.

[Uma] That's right. I won't use the Anne Lamott term, not because I'm squeamish but because I don't believe a draft should be quite so easily dismissed. A first draft contains the spirit that made me want to do the work in the first place, so why should disparaging it make me feel more competent? Drafty I can live with. [Stepping off soapbox...]

[Jeanne] I was enrolled in your online writing course in 2007 with Writers Workshop when I hit this (drafty) phase. I had submitted an early version of this book to the group. But then I reread it and felt remorse that I had let the piece out into public, even though it was a supportive group of writers. I asked you if I could withdraw the piece. You said, hold on. You referred me to your article which so articulately set forth the phases of the writing process:
  • read, exult
  • reread, despair
Then you shared one of your tips from your wonderful "20 writing tips that I wish I'd heard 20 years ago": "The beginning is often not what you think it is." You suggested that I begin the book with a line from the middle of my text, "Snip a square of color" which ultimately became "I snip a patch of color." That truly made the difference. My focus became more about Bearden's connections to his childhood, and less about his New York City life as an adult. I was then able to read and absorb the class comments, and move forward.

The last line of my book is what I've ultimately learned about writing and the creative process: "When I put a beat of color on an empty canvas, I never know what's coming down the track." That is, as long as I remember to stick with it and believe in the process!

[Uma] It's true, isn't it, of writing as of any other kind of art? Congratulations on a beautiful book.